Near to You

{'cause near to you, I am healing, but it's taking so long}

Chapter Ten: 'cause I was there when you said "forever and always"

"P-Peyton," Lucas spluttered. "Hi," he added more quietly.

Brooke's lips were set in a straight line as she waved at him, arching one of her eyebrows. "Nathan and I are here too," she remarked dryly.

He blinked, looking a little stunned. "Right; hi, hey." He threw a nervous smile in Nathan's direction; his brother's face was stony. Lindsey watched everyone nervously, Haley watched everyone helplessly.

"You're getting married," Peyton whispered, the words falling from her lips without the consent of her mind. "You're getting married," she repeated, shaking her head in disbelief.

He didn't have anything to say to that, which was almost okay. She wasn't sure if she'd want to hear anything he could have come up with to say to her.

"We've been dating for a year," Lindsey supplied hesitantly. "Luke proposed last night…"

Peyton turned solely to glare at this other woman. She felt Brooke's hand land on her shoulder, a silent attempt to comfort her.

"Congratulations," Haley whispered with the ghost of a smile, eyeing Peyton warily.

Lindsey flashed a quick, grateful grin.

Peyton could feel the pressure of everyone's eyes on her, but she kept her focus on her ex-boyfriend, her almost-fiancé. His face was carefully neutral, but she found confrontation in his eyes, greatly overshadowing any love leftover from their romance, which never got the conclusion it deserved.

Her anger built up quickly. "Don't look at me like that!" she seethed. "How dare you?!"

"It's been six years, Peyt," he said mutedly, concealing his anxiety with a casual shrug.

"Don't," she insisted, grimacing at the familiar way he shortened her name. "Lucas, I said someday! You're an author, you know the difference between that word and no. Did you honestly think that that was the end? That I'd think we were over for good, that I wouldn't think we'd find our way back to each other?" She stopped short, embarrassed by her emotional outburst and realizing that she'd said too much. She'd been waiting six years to yell at him; everything that she'd never had a chance to say just came pouring out of her. She buried her face in her hands, hiding from everyone.

"Honey," Brooke said softly, touching her arm again.

She looked up and saw sympathy on Haley and Brooke's faces, embarrassed shock on Lucas', and surprised uncertainty on Lindsey's.

And Nathan. Nathan. She could tell that he was hurting on her behalf, but the pain on his face was mostly his own, pain as he realized that she was not, in fact, over Lucas. She suddenly felt like she'd betrayed him, and her eyes stung with tears.

"I have to get out of here," she muttered, and ran for the door.


Brooke gave her about half an hour to calm down before she came looking for her. Peyton sighed as she spotted the brunette approaching and quickly wiped her eyes.

Brooke sat down next to her, getting comfortable on the concrete ledge. She let the silence settle around them momentarily before she spoke: "Thought I might find you here."

Peyton sniffled. "Yeah, I…I didn't know where else to go."

"Can you talk to me? About this?" She paused. "Please?"

"I don't mean to be such a drama queen."

"Peyton," Brooke said softly, "you're not. Considering everything…you've been hurt, it's been hard, and he needs to respect that. God knows I've been down that road with Lucas Scott…"

She met her best friend's eyes, barely registering what Brooke was saying. "But Nathan…"

"Yeah," Brooke whispered. "But Nathan."

"I told him I love him. This morning, I told him that I love him."

"Wha…wow," Brooke murmured. "You and Nathan? In love?"

Peyton laughed dryly; it sounded more like a sob. "Glad to hear you sound so supportive."

"C'mon, honey, you know what I mean." Brooke placed a hand on her knee, hesitating before she asked, "Did you mean it?"

She sighed deeply. "Yeah, I did. Of course I did. I wouldn't have said it otherwise. But I didn't…I didn't expect all of this, and things with Lucas are just so…"

"Maybe you need this, you know? You and Lucas both. Maybe you can get some real closure."

"But I thought I had it!" Peyton cried, frustrated with herself. "It's been so long, I got that stupid book banned from the school, I'm with Nathan and I'm happy…" Her vision was suddenly blurred by tears. She'd known this trip was a mistake. "He gave her that ring," she said brokenly.

"You mean your ring?" Brooke asked knowingly, her voice gentle.

Peyton looked at her guiltily, unable to answer.

"I'm going to ask you something, okay?" When the blonde nodded, she continued, "If Lucas wasn't engaged, if he didn't have someone else, if there was the possibility for the two of you…would you still be with Nathan?"

Her tears spilled over onto her cheeks. "I really want to say yes," she whispered.

Brooke nodded slowly, understanding the thoughts Peyton hadn't voiced. "Okay," she said softly, reaching over and grasping her best friend's hand.

They sat there together, holding hands, under the bridge, just like they used to when they were young.

She wished things were still as simple as they'd been back then. Her grief had been so easily defined; now she was torn and sad and afraid.

So much for happy holidays.


When Brooke convinced her to go back to Haley's place, Peyton had to admit that she was entirely unprepared for the sight that greeted them. Lucas and Lindsey were long gone, probably sorting their own issues out, and the house was strangely silent. She and Brooke ventured through the house and out the back door, where they found Jamie shooting hoops…and Nathan and Haley sitting close together on the steps, speaking softly. They looked very together, much like the family they'd once been.

Peyton's eyes ached from the build-up of tears; her throat felt tight. "Hey," she said loudly, her voice raw.

Startled, they both turned abruptly. Nathan hurriedly got to his feet as Haley smiled sympathetically.

"I should've told you," she said. "I'm so sorry."

Peyton attempted to return her smile. "It's…okay. I mean, I haven't been very good about keeping in touch. Besides, it…it shouldn't bother me."

"But it does," Nathan said bluntly, aware that it was the truth. "It bothers you."

She locked eyes with him and held his gaze, hoping that he'd see how much she hated to hurt him. He turned away from her, extending his hands to help Haley up, and her eyes hardened as, in that moment, he hurt her right back.

Brooke, who'd been uncharacteristically quiet, chose that moment to intervene. "Why don't we all…get settled? I'll unpack, and Nathan and Peyton can go make themselves comfortable at the beach house. Maybe you should take a nap or something, P. Sawyer."

"M'fine," she muttered, embarrassed and distracted, her focus on her boyfriend's face.

There was the slightest hint of disappointment in Haley's voice as she said, "Sure…that sounds good." She smiled hopefully at Nathan. "Why don't the two of you head back here around dinner time?"

He nodded slowly and returned her smile. "Sounds like a plan."

"Okay, bye," Brooke chirped pointedly, hurrying them off, aware of how badly they needed to have a conversation.

"You ready, Peyton?" he asked, sounding formal and detached as he finally looked at her.

He so rarely said her full first name these days – it was mostly Sawyer or Peyt or babe – that she found it jarring. She had to clear her throat before she could speak. "Yeah. Let's go."

Perfectly polite, he gestured for her to step through the door before he did, calling goodbyes over his shoulder. His hand hovered in the air above the small of her back, but never once did he touch her.


She sighed heavily, dropping her bag on the floor in the foyer of the Scott beach house as Nathan closed the door behind him. They'd driven over in total silence, and she still couldn't think of anything to say.

Meeting his eyes hesitantly, she was relieved not to see any hostility, but instead a mixture of worry and hurt. That did her in; she couldn't hold back any longer. She closed the distance between them and hugged him, nestling into his body, holding tightly to him. It took a moment, but soon enough he hugged her back, wrapping her up in his arms and pulling her closer still. She squeezed her eyes closed and pressed her lips together, unsure of why she now felt a stronger need to cry.

"What is this?" he whispered into her hair, his voice strangled. "You want me to save you from your saviour now?"

Her eyes flew open and she wrenched herself out of his arms. "You're not being fair," she whispered, wounded.

"I'm not being fair?! You're talking and acting like you're still in love with him!"

"Are you and Haley really any different?" She stopped short, shaking her head. "I don't want to fight with you right now. I can't…" Her voice broke, "I can't fight with you right now."

He gave her a long, hard look before calming down, slowly blowing out his breath. "Okay," he sighed. He reached for her hand. "C'mere, let's sit down. We'll talk." He pulled her gently toward the living room; she grabbed an afghan off the couch and wrapped it around her shoulders, settling on the rug as he took a few minutes to light a fire. When the flames were growing steadily, slowly heating up the room and the house, Nathan sat down next to her, satisfied with his work. She extended the blanket toward him would be warmer as well.

"Look…Haley was my wife, he have a son. Our marriage fell apart and it was pretty disastrous. I'm not going to tell you that there isn't lingering…stuff there, because there is. But we're over. We're over and I am with you, Peyt. I need you to be with me, too."

"I know," she murmured.

"And I know. I know that you loved him and that he meant pretty much everything to you. And I think it was a really jackass move for him to leave you alone in that hotel room, for him to break your heart like that. It sucked."

"But it was six years ago," she said softly.

"Yeah. And we're different now, all of us are. I mean, I'm a coach and I'm a dad and I feel…like I've come a long way these past yers."

"You have," she asserted. "I'm so proud of you, you know that."

He smiled his thanks. "I guess I just thought…that you'd come a long way, too. I've been proud of you, too, of what I've seen from you lately."

"Six years," she whispered with a bitter laugh. "You've had your life fall apart but you've built it back up, you have a seven-year-old son, and I'm still upset about something I had six years ago. God, I'm pathetic."

"No, you're not, it's just…"

"Just that I'm pathetic?" she guessed, cracking a small grin.

He shook his head. "It was…it was high school, babe. I know how…how you felt about him, but look at how things have changed – like you said, even how I've changed. Compared to who I was then, you we were in high school, together…it feels like another lifetime ago. Doesn't it?"

Smiling reassuringly, she said, "Yeah," because most of the time it did.

Encouraged, he went on, "I mean, it almost seems insignificant now. Forgettable."

She rolled her eyes. "You idiot," she said fondly, "your child was born when we were in high school. I think it'd be good if you remembered that much."

"I guess," he sighed playfully.

Peyton laughed nostalgically. "And I like it, with you, knowing who we once were. I mean, look at where we are right now." She pressed her hand against the carpet beneath them and softly added, "I lost my virginity here."

Nathan inched close to her so that their sides were pressed together; he turned his head, kissing her cheek lightly before he said: "Yeah, about that…"

She smirked, cupping his chin in her hand and kissing him firmly, snuggling into his arm. "I guess I just wish sometimes that we could have stayed like that forever, the way things were in the beginning. Or I wish we just could have stayed away from this town. It was so simple and safe and…"

She felt his chest heave as he sighed. "I can't be Lucas for you," he said frankly, his voice full of vulnerability. "I love you and of course I want to protect you when I think you need it, but you and I, we're different than that…and I like how we are, Peyt."

"I know," she murmured guiltily, kissing his shoulder.

"You can't expect me to give you the things he would have, to treat you the way he would have."

Swallowing hard, she replied, "And you can't…you can't think I'm going to be perfect. I'm kind of a mess, I have all this emotional baggage leftover from even when I was just a kid and I can't…I can't be like Haley was."

"I know," he told her.

She knew that this wasn't the end. He was still hurt and her head was still spinning and they had to stay here with the two people who'd broken their hearts and try their very hardest to act normal. The easy, flirty banter had been buried beneath all this sudden angst and heartache. But she thought they'd be alright. They'd figure out how to work it all out, and they'd remember how good it had been for the past couple months, and they'd work it all out, they'd get back to how they'd been.

Having assured herself that they'd be okay, she stopped thinking for a while and just stared into the fire until her eyes fluttered closed.

"I am with you," she promised in a sleepy whisper.


Haley laughed at her own attempt to reach a measuring cup on the very top shelf. The shortest member of their group of friends sighed and asked, "Nathan, can you give me a hand over here?"

"Sure," he said, walking over to her and looking upward as she pointed toward what he needed. He reached up to grab it, resting his hand briefly on her back to provide balance, and Peyton frowned as they laughed quietly together at something Haley'd said.

She been assigned the task of hulling strawberries, and as she watched them, her methods grew so aggressive that she soon found that she had strawberry juice all over her hands. She grabbed a nearby towel to wipe them off and forced herself to take a deep breath. It didn't mean anything. If there was an item out of reach, it made perfect, logical sense to ask for assistance from the basketball player in the room.

Surveying the room as she continued her task, she saw that Lindsey was pulling something out of the oven. She'd been very quiet since she had returned with Lucas, speaking rarely, and when she did, only to Haley or Luke. Brooke was sitting at the kitchen table, giggling quietly with Jamie. He was the only person in the room who looked remotely comfortable with the situation. He called something to his father and Nathan grinned before he replied, shooting Haley a private smile when Jamie responded enthusiastically.

A hand landed softly on Peyton's back and she jumped in her seat, swiveling around as her heart pounded in her chest. Lucas was standing next to her, nervously pulling his hand back. "Hi," he said, his voice hoarse.

"Hi," she whispered, looking down at her strawberries.

His eyes scanned over the kitchen's other occupants before they locked with hers. "Can we talk?"

"Luke, I –"

"Please?" His blue eyes were wide and hopeful. She couldn't say no. Sighing, she wiped her hands again and gestured for him to lead the way out of the kitchen.

Once they were in the kitchen, she crossed her arms over her chest and faced him. "Okay. Talk."

"Will you please sit first?" He looked vaguely amused by her as he sat on the couch and waited for her to join him.

Heaving a sigh, she sat down as far away from him as she could get and repeated, "Talk."

"I guess I…I just wanted to say that I'm sorry."

"For what?"

He hung his head, and her heart went out to him even though she wished that it hadn't. "I guess I deserve that…" he murmured. "I'm sorry for…all sorts of things."

Her heart seized up and she clenched her fists, waiting for him to continue.

"I should have…kept in touch with you. You shouldn't have had to find out about me and Lindsey, or about our engagement like that. It was totally unfair to you. And maybe I…I should've changed the ending of my book." He ground his teeth together momentarily, nervously rubbing the back of his neck before looking her directly in the eye. "I shouldn't have left you there that night. I should've have listened to you, I should have given you a chance…and if I'd still decided to go, I should have waited until you were awake. I was hurt and I…I just left. I didn't…I didn't mean it, Peyton," he said emphatically, desperate for her to understand. "And sometimes I still wish I'd…"

She gaped at him, eyes wide. He couldn't be saying these things to her. A part of her was thankful, because she'd really needed those apologies, but a bigger part of her was horrified, because she wanted to touch him, to hug him or kiss him, to take it all back, to be his again, because she'd spent a lot of time wishing.

"Thank you," she managed to choke out, and then she burst into tears.

"Peyton…" He said softly, surprised by her sudden breakdown. Unable to resist comforting her, he reached out, his hand gently touching her shoulder. She knew that if she gave in he'd inevitably pull her into a hug, so she batted his hand away, hunching over her lap as she buried her face in her hands. "Peyton," he repeated worriedly, his hand brushing against her knee, and she jumped up, only to run directly into Nathan.

She didn't care what Lucas thought in that moment, or what conclusions he drew from her actions. She didn't step away from Nathan; instead she rested her forehead against his chest, clutching the material of shirt in one of his fists. His hands fell lightly onto her back in a hesitant hug.

"What the hell, man?" she heard him demand, his grip on her tightening the slightest amount.

"I was just apologizing…" Lucas replied, baffled by her reaction. "I didn't mean to –"

"Everything's ready!" Brooke's voice sang out. She paused before asking quietly, "What's going on?"

"Nothing," Nathan said decisively, pulling Peyton a little bit closer. "She's fine. Everything's fine. I'm just going to…tell Haley we'll be there in a second, okay?" He bent his head, speaking close to her ear. "Come on, Peyt, this way…"

She let him lead her into the ground floor bedroom of the house, closing the door behind them. He steered her to the bed, sitting her down. "What's wrong? What did he say?"

She sniffled, swallowing back her tears and hastily wiping her eyes. "I'm fine. I'm sorry."

"You're not fine. What did he say?" Nathan demanded.

Shrugging, she confirmed Lucas' report: "He apologized."

"He apologized," Nathan repeated skeptically.

Faintly, she said, "Yeah."

"But isn't that a good thing? Isn't that what you wanted, what you need from him? Closure?"


Nathan was silent for a long time, and when she looked up at him, she was met with a smile of utter disbelief. "He apologized…" he said slowly, "and now you want him back."

"Nate…" she appealed sadly, shaking her head.

"It's true! This is insane."

Getting defensive, she stood up, planting her hands on her hips. "Yeah, I'm sure it's really painful. It's not like you've been busy with Haley or anything."


"I know what I see!"

Groaning, he ran a hand through his short hair. "Okay, fine, so maybe I was…trying to get back at you a little bit."

"Really mature," she scoffed angrily.

"At least I'm not a liar!"

"What's that supposed to mean?" she demanded hotly.

"You know what it means!"

"I don't!" she exclaimed, her voice rising. "Or I wouldn't have asked."

"Don't talk down to me," he growled.

"Don't say stupid things," she snapped back.

"Don't be a bitch!"

Tears stung her eyes. "Don't be such a jerk! God!" She threw her hands in the air. "We're fighting again. Why does that not surprise me?" she asked pointedly.

"Oh, right, this again. Fighting and sex, that's all we've ever done!" he said, his voice rising an octave as he mimicked her.

"I do not talk like that." She wasn't sure why she felt the need to point out that particular fact, but she did. He infuriated her so much at times.

He stormed over to her, closing the gap between them in three easy steps, getting in her face. She pulled back a little but he placed his hands on her hips, keeping her still. She couldn't catch her breath as his eyes locked with hers; her cheeks were hot.

"Okay, let's just do this, then. We'll cut out the fighting and just have sex. You clearly didn't mean it when you said you loved me –"

"I did!" she said forcefully. His lips were so close to hers and there was so much tension between them that somehow, the next reasonable step seemed to be to kiss him. So she did.

It was the most heated kiss she'd ever experienced; nothing gentle about it, battling tongues and wandering hands. His fingers dug into her hips and she wrapped her arms tightly around his neck and stood on her toes, pushing her body even closer to his. One of his hands snaked in between them and undid the first few buttons on her shirt. She was dizzy by the time they pulled apart for oxygen.

He nodded slowly, gasping for air. "Fighting and sex," he shrugged bitterly.

"Nate, no –"

"It was stupid for me to say that I loved you, to make you think that you had to say it back."

"I didn't have to," she said softly, her hands moving to cup his face. "I wanted to."

He shook her off, taking a step back. "Even if you can't see it, I can. And it's not fair for you to just fuck me while you're waiting around for Lucas."

"Nathan!" she cried breathlessly, her jaw dropping. He was so much more than that, he was everything but that. Her chest felt tight as she sucked in some air, preparing herself to rebuke his comments, but she didn't have the chance.

Both of them were distracted in that moment by the stunned whisper of "What?!" that came from the doorway. They whirled around, completely guilty expressions on their faces, to find the smile on Haley's lips turning quickly into a frown.